Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Risky Business

It's the dawn of the 1990s and I'm about 8 years old. I'm standing atop the biggest slippery dip in our Brisbane suburb; it's so high, I can practically see the Gold Coast. Okay, not quite, but it feels like I could. And then, the best part of all - sitting down on the cool metal and getting ready to launch myself down that monster. I plunge down that slippery dip, hair whipping behind me, face full of wind, and when I get to the bottom, I savour the best kind of rush you can get when you're just a kid.

The last time I saw a slippery dip like that was maybe 15 years ago. I've noticed they're not called 'slippery dips' anymore, they're just plain old slides. And they're not nearly as exciting as the ones of yore.

I've noticed this a lot since becoming a parent - the absence of just about any risk in children's lives. Now in the case of these crazy, aforementioned slippery dips, I can see why - broken arms and legs were their specialty. Or nasty gashes. My childhood friend, Hendrik, went down one of these beasts with particular abandon, not realising there was a collection of broken glass awaiting him at the bottom. Needless to say, he required lots of stitches and still sports a pretty tough-looking scar on his upper arm today.

No, I'm quite relieved our little munchkin won't be tempted by a slippery dip in our area.

But has safety and PC-ness taken us just a little bit too far the other way?

There's something to be said for a little risk-taking. During a recent visit, my step-mum (who happens to be a social worker) was talking about 'the dignity of risk', the importance of giving your children a reasonable amount of space to explore and discover their environment. By honouring their dignity in this way, children are more likely to learn about their physical capabilities and limitations in a meaningful way.

It's funny how my childhood memories have altered a little in my mind, since becoming a parent. I reflect back on all the risky things we did - climbing to the top of the huge gum tree in our yard, playing on the roof of our neighbour's house, digging trenches under our redback-spider-infested house, covering the old-school trampoline (which bears little resemblance to the super-safe, super-protected trampolines of today) in detergent and water, then sliding across it at top speed - and while I smile, thinking about how much fun I had, I also shudder at the thought of my daughter doing the same things.

In the end, I guess it's a balance between letting kids do what they do, knowing they're going to hurt themselves sometimes, as well as having boundaries and limits.

I wish for my daughter a fun, exciting, safe childhood that she can look back on as happily as I look back on mine.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The First Family of Surfing


I want to tell you about an amazing, strange, inspiring family, the Paskowitz family. Dubbed the 'first family of surfing' in the US, this unconventional family took to the road in a 24-foot campervan for some 25 years while they raised their 9 children. Believing that the best education they could give their children was life on the road, the children never attended regular school; Dorian, their father, instead insisted that they dedicate themselves to surfing and live healthy, clean lives. 

It certainly got me thinking.

On the one hand, I found their enthusiasm for travel, their reverence for the ocean and nature, to be quite intoxicating. Before I knew it, I was imagining my husband, 18-month old daughter and I packing up our essentials-only items and heading out on an exciting, horizon-expanding trip round Australia. Something new every day. 

Oh the experiences we were having in my head! 

Long walks on pristine beaches. Climbing mountains and breathing in the freshest air. Staying in cabins and waking to birdsong. 

Was this the dreamy, idyllic existence the Paskowitz family enjoyed on a daily basis?

Not exactly.

They certainly gained a tremendous amount of experience and joy on the road, but there were definite costs. For one, Juliette, their mother, wore herself down to the ground, having so many babies so close together and with so little extra help. And with no formal education, the children grew up somewhat unprepared for modern life - one son, Abraham, desperately wished to become a doctor, but when he realised how much he needed to do just to catch up on his schooling, let alone qualify for medicine, he knew it was close to impossible. 

Their stories, captured in the documentary, Surfwise, really got me thinking about striking that balance between convention/security/responsibility and taking risks/being creative/defying cultural ideas about what gives us meaning and makes us happy. How many people are slaves to their mortgages, their jobs, sacrificing happiness and enjoyment now for the end of their lives when they retire? Alternatively, who wants to constantly worry about money and security, about feeding their family, in the pursuit of a freer life? 

Surely there's a middle ground. I'm just not quite sure what that is yet.

At the close of the documentary, reflecting on the choices he made for his family, Dorian Paskowitz said, "It's easier to die when you have lived than when you haven't. So go make memories, because when you die, you won't go alone, you will take them with you". 

Sage words. And definitely some food for thought.